After a hearty lesson, you're ready to move your students into a discussion. You prompt the class with a question, only to hear:

A cricket chirps. ....well, that's awkward.

What can you do to engage the students in a meaningful discussion?

Use these4 discussion strategiesto turn that awkward silence into a conversation the students will want to participate in.

#1: Prepare students for the discussion

According to Columbia University, students are more motivated to participate in discussions if they feel more prepared.

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Preparing students for what's coming up may reduce the anxiety of class discussions because students have the resources and time to plan their participation. When students know what is expected of them and are given time to get ready, they'll know what to do and be able to put their best foot forward.

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Discussion strategies that help prepare students:

  • explain to students what they're expected to do

  • review the rules of the discussion (taking turns, active listening)

  • give students time to review the discussion material

  • encourage students to prepare questions for the discussion

  • allow students tothink-pair-share to research and review the material/ideas

#2: Provide structure

Enforcing a structure is a strategy that ensures a smooth discussion so everyone knows what they're expected to do.

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According to the University of Maryland, structure provides the framework for discussion, from providing the right environment for collaboration to ensuring students have a role and opportunity to participate.

With an established setup, students are held accountable for their actions, which encourages them to fulfill their roles.

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Discussion strategies that help implement structure:

  • enforce rules of discussion etiquette (ex. eye contact, active listening, no interruptions)

  • arrange the chairs/desks to encourage discussion (ex. students facing each other in a circle)

  • break the discussion into small groups (ex. in groups of 5 vs. a whole class discussion)

  • assign roles (ex. leader/facilitator, timekeeper, devil's advocate, moderators)


Mr. Stane is planning a discussion about the pros and cons of fossil fuels. He knows his class is interested in the topic but they've been quiet in previous discussions. Which strategy may NOT be beneficial in helping Mr. Stane prepare his students?

#3: Provide prompts and guiding sentences

Give students sentence starters to help them frame their thinking into words. Sentence starters are prompts that begin a sentence or thought.

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This strategy supports learners of all levels, especially those who are shy or want to improve their public speaking skills by:

  • increasing the quality of responses

  • learning new vocabulary and academic terms

  • clarifying and structuring students' responses

  • supporting language learners' speaking skills

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Sentence starters can be classified into groups:

  • agreement/disagreement ("I agree/disagree with...because...")

  • clarification ("What evidence do you have to support...")

  • extension ("This makes me think about...")

  • expressing an opinion ("I believe...")

  • prediction ("Based on...I predict...")

  • responding ("Adding onto what __ said...")

Have the sentence starters printed out or posted in the classroom for convenience!

#4: Model expectations

Showing students models of a smooth classroom discussion is a great way for students to see what kind of conversation they have the opportunity to engage in.

A woman confidently says,

Modeling involves watching others and learning from their example. This is an effective strategy because students see what is expected of them and can adjust their actions accordingly.

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Discussion strategies that will model expectations:

  • practice discourse rules before the discussion (ex. practice using sentence starters)

  • remind students of the discussion structure if things go off-course (ex. remind students to make eye contact)

  • show videos of sample classroom discussions, mock debates, and Socratic seminars

  • host classroom discussions regularly so discussions are familiar and routine

Take Action

Classroom discussions are great opportunties to share ideas and encourage students to discover their voices. Many students feel nervous speaking publicly, but with strategic preparation and practice, they'll discover there's so much to learn and share with their peers. The awkward cricket chirps will be replaced by lively discussions in no time!

A man turns and smiles, saying:

Get your students engaged in classroom discussions:


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